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Local food hallmark of downtown farmers market's 20th anniversary

It started as an idea that might draw residents to Newmarket’s flagging Main Street and, 20 years later, it has become the largest farmers market in York Region

It started as an idea that might draw residents to Newmarket’s flagging Main Street and, 20 years later, it has become the largest farmers market in York Region.

And, as it opens for its double-decade anniversary tomorrow at 8 a.m. at Riverwalk Commons, Jackie Playter will also tell you it’s the best farmers market in the region.

“We were downtown neighbours, and we were all worried about Main Street. We thought a farmers market would help revitalize the downtown.”

Playter, Joe Sponga, Marilyn Church and Jim Bruce were among those who gathered about her dining room table to put a plan in place; they established a board, began visiting area farmers and managed to get a small sponsorship grant from the Town of Newmarket.

The first Newmarket Farmers Market opened in 1999 in a parking lot at Doug Duncan Drive and Timothy Street — where Riverwalk Commons is now located — with 12 farmers from the Holland Marsh, East Gwillimbury, Georgina and Uxbridge operating from their 10-by-10 feet stalls.

The early events they planned have now become farmers market traditions — the pie-eating contest, the horse and wagon rides, clowns and live music (granted, it was CDs playing on “boombox” in the first few years), Playter said.

Other than for the 2010 season that they had to vacate the location when Riverwalk Commons was being built — they went to the parking lot at the Newmarket Municipal Offices on Mulock Drive — residents have come to rely on the downtown Newmarket Saturday morning mainstay for fresh local vegetables, flowers and products like honey.

The market, which now has an array of sponsors, features 35 to 40 local vendors who meet the market’s strict requirement that the products they sell must be locally grown — 70 per cent of which must be from their own farm. For most of them, it is a family business.

"We're a real farmers market," Playter asserted.

Several of the original farmers can still be found at the market, including Cooper Farms in Zephyr, Perennial Petals of Vandorf, MG Bees Honey of Kettleby, Willowtree Farms of Port Perry, Howard Farms of East Gwillimbury and VanHart Farms of Holland Marsh.

"It's like a family," Playter said. "We've shared babies being born, marriages, death."

For every four farmers, a food or crafter stall is permitted, as well as a sponsor and community charity tables.

Some of the most popular food attractions now are the dim sum, crepes and, of course, the pizza vendor, Ella's Oven ― which is supporting the owners' daughter's education fund.

While the market draws from beyond Newmarket’s borders, Playter said the core base of loyal customers live within walking distance of the market, and come with babies, children and dogs in tow.

“It has become a community event,” Playter said, “it’s where people come to talk to their neighbours.

“People love the market, they come for the freshness and stay for the fun.”

The revitalization of Main Street, and the opening of Riverwalk Commons with the splash pad feature, has seen visitors to the market double, she added.

And, without a doubt, the growing awareness of not only the health but environmental benefits of eating locally grown food have supported the market’s growth and enduring popularity.

“Everyone wants to eat healthy, fresh locally grown food,” Playter said.

The market has the added benefit of acting as an incubator for thriving local businesses, such as the Maid’s Cottage, which first began selling its now revered and renowned butter tarts at the market.

While the products are limited at this time of the year, the market will open tomorrow. Peak season begins the third week of June, Playter added.

As part of the 20th anniversary celebrations, a community dinner featuring locally grown food is planned for Sept. 7.



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Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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